- Kamakshi Tandon
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Big four? What big four? Their hegemony was unexpectedly interrupted last week, with Rafael Nadal the only one to make it as far as the semifinals of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Nadal went on to win the title, while the rest headed to Italy with mixed feelings. Here's a reflection on their very different weeks.
After making a slow start in both the Monte Carlo and Barcelona final, Nadal came out storming in Madrid against Stanislas Wawrinka and collected a record 24th Masters title, his 55th overall and his 40th on clay, tying Tomas Muster for second in that category. (Only Guillermo Vilas, with 45 titles, has more clay victories.)
It was a week of ebb and flow for Nadal. The Spaniard looked brilliant at times, showing superb improvisation and touch, but backed off at others and let his opponent get competitive. But he was in real danger only against compatriot David Ferrer in an all-Spanish quarterfinal, which was played in front of a packed home stadium.
How much danger? Ferrer was close to having two match points in the second set, only to have it snatched away by one of those brilliant moments from Nadal. After capturing the ensuing tiebreaker, Nadal again found himself facing break points at the beginning of the third but fended them off. The tour's most fabled competitor then stomped his good friend 6-0 to finish things off.
The two compatriots could face each other again in Rome this week, and if Nadal takes the title, he would overtake Ferrer and become the world No. 4. That will be a closely watched storyline, because Nadal getting to No. 4 would prevent the possibility of Nadal and Djokovic ending up in the same quarter of the draw at the French Open. (With Roger Federer at No. 3, all three could end up on the same half at the French Open if Nadal stays where he is.)
The only negative of the week: Nadal's knees continue to bother him, even though he can't always predict when. That means he might still be vulnerable at times, particularly if he happens to be playing a tough opponent. If not for that, the rest of the field might be tempted to pack up and head for the grass right now.
After the boos Djokovic got last week, he'll be happy to be in Rome, the Masters event where his popularity is the highest. With his fluent Italian and outgoing personality, he has charmed the locals, and this is the one big event where crowds turn out to cheer for him as much as they do for Federer and Nadal (or even more).
That will be welcome as Djokovic licks his wounds from a physically and psychologically painful defeat in Madrid. Not only did he lose his opening match in three sets to Grigor Dimitrov, but the Serb got booed by the crowd and needed treatment on the same ankle he hurt at Davis Cup a few weeks ago.
Though Djokovic played through the injury to win Monte Carlo, he revealed that it had continued to trouble him afterward and almost kept him from playing last week. "For 12 days after Monte Carlo I haven't touched the racket," he said. "I didn't know up to Saturday if I'm going to come here or not because of the ankle."
Djokovic didn't get much sympathy from the Spanish crowd, which suspected gamesmanship when he stopped to get treatment at a set and 4-2 down and then got back on serve. Djokovic also drew their ire for drop-shotting Dimitrov when the Bulgarian was suffering cramps later in the set. It may have been smart strategically, but fans found it unsportsmanlike.
But the hostility had begun well before that, with Djokovic greeted by jeers and whistles when he asked the umpire to come down and check a mark. Though that also happened to other non-Spanish players during the week, it was ironic because Djokovic is extremely sporting about giving up calls and acknowledging his opponents' good shots.
"You know, in the first set, every single close call that I went to look at the ball and the chair umpire comes to see, I got whistled," Djokovic said afterward. "I don't see any reason for that. I didn't do anything bad. When I see the ball, it's good, I clear the mark. I give him a point."
Once it looked like Dimitrov might pull off the upset , the crowd barracked loudly for the 21-year-old. A resentful Djokovic apparently screamed an obscene remark in Serbian after winning the first set, but assuming most spectators had no idea, their treatment of him was a little harsh.
At least the physical damage didn't seem to be serious. "The ankle is not bothering me anymore, which is great news," Djokovic reported at Rome.
While Djokovic's exit was full of drama, Federer's was largely anticlimactic in an error-filled loss to Kei Nishikori that didn't really stir the crowd one way or the other.
"I'm pretty disappointed with my play," Federer said afterward. "I'm not sure how well Kei thought he played. I didn't think he had to play his very best, either, which is even more disappointing.
"We're so accustomed to always finding that rhythm eventually, so it's even more disappointing if you never really find it, which was the case today," he added.
Much of that was attributed to rust. Federer was playing his first tournament in almost two months and rarely found any consistency from the baseline in his second match in Madrid. But his serve was in working order, and he did say he did not feel any pain during the week, a change from the back problems he suffered at Indian Wells.
The takeaway from the week? "I'm going to go back to the practice court, train hard, and make sure I don't have these kind of days anymore," Federer said.
Still looking for a patch of good form after running out of steam against Andy Murray in the Australian Open semifinals, Federer has seen his ranking drop back to No. 3 behind Murray. But the Swiss hopes the extra rest will pay off against top players -- if he gets to face them.
"Most of them have played two or three tournaments on clay and I'm still looking to get into it, but that can be a big advantage down the stretch," Federer said after arriving in Rome. "But for that, I need to start winning matches."
At least he made Nishikori's week. "To beat him, that was one of my goals for my tennis career," said the 23-year-old Japanese, who became the youngest player to defeat Federer.
As for the appearance-fee saga with his hometown tournament in Basel, Switzerland, Federer spelled out that he planned to play there in October for free. "For me personally, it's a place I look back on with a lot of great emotions as a ball boy, winning the title there eventually, and making my second finals there on tour," he said. "I've had a great time there always, and I don't want that to change just because of some business situation that couldn't get solved, you know.
"I wanted to diffuse the situation and announce that I'm going to play without getting paid and just enjoy myself over there. So that, for me, is the most important thing above everything."
Extra controversy was generated after Basel tournament director Roger Brennwald said he could no longer speak directly to Federer and phoned him in front of reporters to demonstrate. The move was criticized as a gimmick, and Brennwald later apologized, saying it was an impulsive response to a press-conference question. Federer declined to give a reaction, saying, "It doesn't matter. I don't discuss those things in the press like he does. I did the utmost, and that's all I need to know."
Murray was practically invisible last week. He fell a little ill before the tournament and looked stiff and sore in his first match, which he said was exacerbated by Florian Mayer's unorthodox game. His next match against Gilles Simon was a marathon. The last match of the day, it finished close to 1 a.m., and Murray didn't get to bed until about three hours later, leaving him in less-than-ideal shape for a quarterfinal against Tomas Berdych.
Murray lost in straight sets, and his back started to bother him a little bit in the last two matches.
But with expectations always low for him during this part of the season, it was an acceptable showing overall. "I need to do a better job of taking my chances," Murray said, but otherwise felt he was improving after some intense training during the previous couple of weeks.